Issues Finding Baby Formula in the Flathead Expected to Continue Into Summer

In the meantime, the health department and other regional nonprofits have been working to try and help connect parents and guardians with formula

By Mike Kordenbrock
Baby formula food. Adobe stock

Stretching back to February it’s been hit or miss finding baby formula on the shelves of Flathead County grocery stores, and consistent restocking of shelves might be as far away as mid-July or August.

The formula shortage in the United States has been driven largely by problems at an Abbot Nutrition production plant. The company is one of four major formula manufacturers in the nation, and it began recalling products in February out of concerns that a Michigan facility producing half of its formula could be producing formula contaminated with dangerous and in some cases deadly bacteria. The factory was shut down in February amid a Food and Drug Administration investigation.

On Saturday news outlets including the Associated Press reported that the Michigan plant had restarted production, and that it will prioritizes EleCare specialty formulas for infants with severe food allergies and digestive problems. Still, an immediate change in the Flathead Valley isn’t expected.

“Six to eight weeks after it opens, there should be a pretty consistent restock across the nation,” said Kilani Klette, the deputy Flathead County health officer and manager of the health department’s community health division. “And what we have been seeing locally is that it goes to those larger chain stores like Walmart first. So, (we’re) hoping there will be a pretty significant turnaround, but unsure when that will actually take over.”

Klette, speaking on June 2, said that she and her staff members have been in frequent contact with area retailers in an effort to monitor supplies so that they know where to direct people. In between all of those phone calls, Klette said that she can’t help but take a look for herself when she’s out grocery shopping.

The efforts of Klette and health department staff members to help families find and acquire formula are part of the county’s WIC program, which offers low cost health services to low-income women, infants and children in the form of things like nutritional screenings, education, counseling, and supplemental foods. Klette said that for some of the 1,000 monthly county participants in WIC finding the right kind of formula has in some cases turned a normal trip grocery shopping into stops at six different locations. Nationwide, WIC participants account for half of all baby formula purchases, according to information that has been shared by the White House.

President Joe Biden has used the Defense Production Act, and pledged to use the military to import formula, but the shortage on a national level still seems to be worsening. Last month Biden also signed the Access to Baby Formula Act of 2022 which expanded formula products eligible for purchase under the WIC program.

 In a June 1 article, the Wall Street Journal reported that nationally 23% of powdered baby formula had been out of stock for the week ending May 22, which was a 2% increase from the previous week. Going back to January when the Abbott recall was announced, 11% of powdered formula had been out of stock because of what the Wall Street Journal called “pandemic-related supply chain shortages and inflation.” The market research firm IRL told the WSJ that before the pandemic the normal out-of-stock range for powdered formula was between 5% and 7%.

The Flathead City-County Health Department has also made efforts to adjust WIC benefits in real-time to give parents and guardians more flexibility, in some cases taking phone calls from WIC participants when they’re at a grocery store and find a suitable alternative formula that their card can be adjusted to cover. Klette said the health department has also in some cases sent a staff member with families to help identify alternative formulas on shelves. Recently, WIC at the state and national level has expanded the brands approved for WIC participants to purchase, which Klette said has helped. She said that in particular medical formulas are in “extremely short supply.”  

The Nurturing Center, a childcare resource and referral agency based out of Kalispell, works with families in Flathead, Lake, Lincoln and Sanders counties. Jennifer Sevier, an outreach and communication specialist with the center, said it has been purchasing formula from non-local suppliers and notifying people when it’s available. People can pick up formula from the center with no questions asked. As of June 6, the center had a variety of formulas on hand to distribute, according to Sevier, who said that locally people seem to be able to find formula, but that the center has seen an uptick in requests from more rural communities, like Trego.

Meanwhile the Mother’s Milk Bank of Montana in Missoula hasn’t seen a major change in demand for breast milk. Taylor Pfaff, the director of operations for the bank, wondered if it was because of people not knowing about the bank, and not realizing that it can provide breast milk beyond the specific circumstances it prioritizes.

“We haven’t had quite a surge as what we kind of were anticipating, but at any moment that could change,” Pfaff said.

There has been an increase in phone calls from moms that are willing to donate because of the shortage, and Pfaff said in the last two to three weeks there has been an increase in calls from families needing breast milk.

The milk bank in Missoula is part of a nationwide network and is the only one in Montana. It prioritizes providing pasteurized breast milk to hospitals, as well as outpatients with medically fragile babies. An additional hurdle that some parents and guardians might face in getting milk from the bank is that a doctor’s prescription is required.

“The other thing is donor milk is expensive, so it’s hard for us to be a long-term solution. With the amount of milk that we have ready now, we can definitely fill in these small pockets between getting formula,” Pfaff said. Milk from the bank is $4.50 an ounce, and shipping could add another $20 to the price. The milk bank does offer what it calls scholarship milk, meaning milk that is at a reduced price for families that are financially unable to cover the full cost.

The bank ships milk overnight, which Pfaff said means that milk could go out on a Monday and then arrive Tuesday before 10 a.m. The bank works to be flexible, to the point where Pfaff said she personally dropped of milk to multiple mothers on Memorial Day. In other instances when it’s a long drive between the bank and a recipient, they have worked to meet people halfway for a hand off.

“We really try to be available. We know how important it is, and how scary it is when you can’t feed your baby.”